Science, Faith, and Policy

Living in Utah provides interesting up-close observations of tensions that are being worked out within Mormon culture on a public stage. One tension that is not unique to Mormonism but is nevertheless persistent in our history is the strained relationship between faith and science. Take, for example, the recent news that Rep. Chris Stewart is challenging the science behind the EPA’s enforcement of clean air policies. It turns out that the science he is criticizing is, in part, produced by a BYU professor, Arden Pope, a scholar who has done as much as anyone in this country to establish the link between air pollution and public health. Arden, not surprisingly, is a devout Mormon and has been through this kind of politically motivated attack before. He has pretty thick skin.

I don’t pretend to know to what degree Stewart’s distrust of science stems from his Mormon faith, but we, of course, have experienced our moments of in-fighting over the status of science in our own tradition. And yet we continue to have a strong tradition of LDS scientists who do exceptional and valuable work for humanity. Stewart is already on record for publicly doubting the science behind climate change, so we can at least see a pattern. I suspect what is getting in the way of his ability to understand science is a dogmatic attachment to political ideology and not his religious faith. Of course, I fully recognize that separating religion from politics in a worldview like his can be as hard as separating altruistic from selfish motives in a teenage boy’s attempt to help a teenage girl with her homework. A recent New York Times Op-Ed by Adam Frank highlighted our era of denialism. His concern is a serious one. He calls for more active engagement on the part of us non-scientists:

“For the civic-minded nonscientists there are school board curriculum meetings and long-term climate response plans that cry out for the participation of informed citizens. And for every parent and grandparent there is the opportunity to make a few more trips to the science museum with your children.”

Would that we might place a higher premium on scientific literacy for our children!

I do know Arden Pope well enough to believe that his commitment to scientific understanding stems from his commitment to God and that the results of his research are the fruit of a consecrated life. Does that mean that all of his research should be taken for the Truth or that it is beyond question? Of course not. But the fact that it has stood the test of time, that it has been corroborated by research done elsewhere, and that it points to enormous risks we run when we pollute the air, particularly the vulnerability of children and the elderly it creates, should give us enough pause to examine the research with an objective, rather than an ideological, eye. We have a lot of work to do to figure out how to solve the problem of pollution. Wrangling over needless doubts raised by congressmen only delays our progress.

I don’t understand much of the tensions that people see in the relationship between science and faith. To me, it seems patently obvious that scriptural accounts of the origin of the world, for example, are not scientific texts. Nor for that matter are scientific explanations for the origins of life sufficient narratives of the reasons for our existence or for our moral self-understanding. Science tells us how things work and religion seeks to tell us why they exist. I fully recognize that scientists are sometimes guilty of overstepping their own scientific ways of understanding the world by making claims about the ultimate questions without sufficient evidence. To argue that we know something definitive about the meaning of human existence or the possible existence of God because we have evidence of evolution, for example, is scientifically irresponsible. But religious folks make similar mistakes. They sometimes argue, as if in a serious scientific way, that science is inconclusive or that it cannot be trusted, and yet the only  “evidence” they provide is mere doubt about the evidence we do have. I find nothing in scripture that tells me I should be suspicious of scientific findings about the origins of the world or about such questions as the link between air pollution and public health, for that matter. These are matters that I suspect God is willing for us to work out among ourselves. The scriptures, at least, point us in the direction of how to go about making wise decisions. They point to principles of stewardship, or judgment, they warn against excess or uses of natural resources for extortion, they point to the need to worry ourselves about the poor and most vulnerable, and they provide a mandate for learning as much as we can about the earth and its workings. They warn against worldly knowledge when it comes unmoored from our divinely revealed moral purposes, but they also suggest that only a full commitment to gathering all knowledge will allow those who remain true to their covenants to fully realize God’s purposes on earth. This is the reason for the very high value placed on education in the LDS tradition, and I don’t mean education as job training or religious education alone. I mean general, broad, and interdisciplinary learning that helps us to have as clear an understanding of the world, its problems, and its potential solutions as we can get. Only in this way do we make ourselves free enough of ignorance to make the wisest decisions.

So, yes, Rep. Stewart, in my judgment, is making an embarrassing mistake in raising his doubts. I am embarrassed for and by him. I don’t say this because he has no right to ask honest questions of science. I say this because it seems obvious that his are not honest questions. The questions have already been posed many times over and there are simply too many responsibilities we must now meet, responsibilities to the earth, to the young, to the elderly, and to future generations for us to be expending wasted energy debating again and ad nauseum hard-earned knowledge that has taken years of careful research to prove its worth to humanity. We would do well, by our own religious principles, to pay such knowledge heed.

 

 


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